The role of local governments in a democracy | Political economics

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A The two-judge bench of the Honorable Lahore High Court (LHC) has issued an order preventing the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) from holding local elections in Punjab. The ECP had earlier released a timetable for the first phase of local elections in Punjab. June 9 was set as election day.

Local governments in Punjab were dissolved by the PTI-led government of Punjab in May 2019. Over the past three years, a whole piece of our democratic system was missing. Unfortunately, this was not the first time that people were deprived of their democratic right.

The history of the local government system in the subcontinent is ancient. The Aryans, for the first time, introduced a system of local government in the region. The panchayat system has proven its effectiveness and has been used to govern local affairs, such as the allocation of land to peasants for cultivation, the collection of taxes, the resolution of disputes and the provision of basic necessities for the population/ settlements.

State officials were primarily interested in maintaining public order and collecting revenue for the central government. The local bodies flourished as an active organ of the village community and performed developmental, administrative and judicial functions, not in the modern sense, but in their own way.

In Pakistan, the first extended local government system was introduced by the Basic Democracies Ordinance of 1959, after the military seized power in a coup by General Ayub Khan. It dissolved the upper tiers of elected governments in 1959 and revived local governments as the only representative tier of government.

Later, he introduced the Municipal Administration Ordinance of 1960, which had a hierarchical system of four linked tiers. The lowest level consisted of trade union councils made up of elected members. The members of the union council elected the president from among themselves.

On the whole, as a result of the colonial legacy, local governments were controlled by bureaucracy. Deputy Commissioners and Commissioners, chief bureaucrats at district and division level, respectively, had the power to overrule any proceedings or decisions taken by local councils.

The military again seized control of state power through General Ziaul Haq’s coup in 1977, when he overthrew the Pakistan People’s Party government. Zia introduced the most coercive and centralized state apparatus through the imposition of martial law and put the constitution on hold.

A system of local government was introduced in the absence of national and provincial governments under the direct control of the military. Under this law, local government elections were held non-party in all provinces of Pakistan. Local governments introduced under this system operated until 2000.

General Musharraf introduced a new system of local government through the Local Government Ordinance (LGO) of 2001. The main distinction of the Punjab Local Government Ordinance (PLGO) of 2001 from the Ordinances previous ones was the elimination of the urban-rural divide. Local governments were created at three levels: union council, tehsil council and district council.

After Musharraf’s ousting in 2008, the Pakistan People’s Party came to power and introduced the 18th Constitutional Amendment which strengthened provincial autonomy. The constitutional restriction on amending the Local Government Ordinance 2001 already expired in 2009. It thus became possible for the provinces to legislate on the local government system of their choice. Therefore, different provinces have opted for different structures for their local governments. The provincial assembly of Baluchistan passed the local government law in 2010, while the provincial assemblies of Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa passed their local government laws in 2013.

Empowered local governance ensures an equitable distribution of resources, gives a sense of ownership to the population, mobilizes more resources for development, ensures greater responsiveness and accountability and contributes to the strengthening of federalism.

In 2015 local elections were held, but in August 2018 Imran Khan’s Tehreek-i-Insaf came to power; in May 2019, Khan dismantled local government structures in provinces controlled by his party and promised to introduce a modern and more efficient system.

Our system of democratic governance has either been ineffective or completely suspended. This is undoubtedly a major cause for democratic institutions and democratic values ​​in our society. Municipalities are responsible for providing quality municipal services to citizens. Access to municipal services and the quality of their delivery strongly influence the social, economic and environmental performance of a city as well as its urban development.

But the state of municipal services and infrastructure has deteriorated in Pakistan over the years. With rapid urbanization, the need for effective and efficient local governments has become more acute.

Several tasks related to municipal services are in the process of being transferred or are already the responsibility of local governments. However, this transfer of responsibilities often does not go hand in hand with the simultaneous transfer of structures, financial resources and authority to examine and decide on issues at the local level. How best to organize and manage these services?

The credibility of local governments with their citizens often depends on their experience with the basic services that municipalities are supposed to provide. Here, municipal companies, which are responsible for providing these municipal services, play a key role because the quality of this service provision strongly influences the performance and livability of a city. But the public sector is often unable to respond due to planning and management capacity deficits, so urban and rural settlements lack basic municipal services and quality infrastructure necessary for effective service delivery.

Drinking water is a basic need. Unfortunately, access to water is still a long way off in many cities. The water supply is often contaminated with sewage, thus creating various waterborne diseases and an environmental challenge for the people.

Unsafe water poses serious health risks that have tangible impacts on education and economic activities due to disease, disability, especially among the most vulnerable population groups, such as the poor in cities. Prioritizing water and sanitation issues is therefore crucial in the overall urban development effort.

Poorly managed solid waste and depleted sewage systems also pose a threat to groundwater resources. Poor infrastructure of streets, roads and drains cause environmental problems. Streets and roads are often flooded with sewage, making it difficult for people to move around.

Mismanaged waste has a huge impact on health, the local and global environment and the economy. Successful waste management, on the other hand, can not only reduce negative impacts, but can also unlock potential in terms of improved resource efficiency and job creation.

This justifies that the municipal authorities and the provincial government develop a waste disposal plan in order to limit the environmental challenges. Solid waste can be converted into energy by generating electricity from the waste.

Cities are key players in national development strategies. Therefore, more attention should be paid to the development of national urban policies with the aim of achieving sustainable and inclusive urban development. This is also in line with Sustainable Development Goal 11 (Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable), referring specifically to urban areas. It is important to mention that Article 140-A of the constitution enjoins all provincial governments to establish a system of local government and to delegate political, administrative and financial responsibility to elected representatives of local governments.

Local government systems need more funds to function better and to meet the needs of the ever-increasing needs of the population. Organizations like the Punjab Municipal Development Fund Company and initiatives like the Punjab Cities Program are doing just that. Under the World Bank-funded PCP with a budget of $236 million, the focus is on municipal services such as water supply, sewage, urban roads, parks, streetlights and solid waste management, as well as institutional strengthening of local governments.

Local governance ensures an equitable distribution of resources, gives a sense of belonging to the local population, mobilizes more resources for development, ensures greater responsiveness and accountability and contributes to the strengthening of federalism and national integration through satisfied citizens.


The writer is a media and communications professional and has experience working in development and the public sector


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